Cargill has fired around 180 Somali workers at a northeastern Colorado meatpacking plant after a dispute over access to Muslim prayer time.

Last week, roughly 200 Somali employees at a large beef-processing plant in Fort Morgan essentially walked off the job after claiming that Cargill wasn’t allowing some workers to take prayer breaks.

The Minnetonka-based agribusiness giant says it has long accommodated such prayer breaks, and that after the Somali workers did not show up for work for three consecutive days, Cargill terminated their employment.

The Somali workers didn’t report for work after long-standing tensions over prayer breaks at the plant culminated in an incident Dec. 18 in which some workers were denied such breaks by supervisors, said Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which has interceded on behalf of the Colorado workers.

On Dec 18, “some people did get a chance to pray, but a majority did not,” he said. After those who didn’t get to pray questioned a supervisor, they were told, “If you don’t want to work here, go home.”

In the Muslim faith, prayer is required five times a day, a mandate that has sometimes led to conflicts with U.S. employers, particularly meatpackers with largely immigrant workforces.

Since 2009, Cargill, one of the largest U.S. beef processors, has had two “reflection rooms” for prayer at its Fort Morgan plant, which employs about 2,000. The plant takes in live cattle and ships out boxed beef. Prayer breaks usually last about five minutes. The issue at Cargill on Dec. 18 involved the Muslim workers’ sundown prayer, which occurs during the second shift.

Mike Martin, a Cargill spokesman, said that typically up to three employees from a single department are allowed to go pray at one time. On Dec. 18, 11 meat-cutting workers asked to go pray and were told “they could go a few at a time, they couldn’t go together. So they all went.”

After the second shift, 10 of the workers who took the prayer break submitted their resignations, Martin said. During the following Monday’s second shift, 160 Somali workers didn’t show up for work and 17 more clocked in but then walked off the job, Martin said. The absences continued for the next two days. Cargill’s policy is that if workers don’t show up for the job — or don’t call in — for three consecutive days, they are fired.

The company said that “multiple attempts” had been made to discuss the situation with Somali employees but that they failed. Martin said the plant continues to employ another 400 Somali workers.

CAIR’s Hussein said that tensions between Somali workers and shop floor supervisors over prayer breaks at the Cargill plant had been building before the recent incident.

“This has been going on for a long time,” he said. “There have been instances last year and this year where supervisors would literally say, ‘You’re fired, you’re going home,’ if you go to pray.”

Cargill said in a statement that it makes “reasonable efforts” to grant employees requests for prayer time, but that accommodation “is not guaranteed every day” and is dependent on such factors as production schedules and staffing levels.

“What our people look at as trying to accommodate employees and keep the [production] lines running is being interpreted by some employees as inflexibility,” Martin said.